Alpha Dog: How Sony Created the Most Innovative Camera Brand in Under a Decade


Using the bones of a dying giant and a healthy dose of innovation, Sony built one of the most forward thinking lines of high-end cameras available in recent memory.

When they entered the serious photography market following their acquisition of the struggling Konica Minolta camera business, Sony brought the coffers and clout of an international conglomerate as well as the fresh eyes of a newcomer. Using those tools, they’ve pushed the technological envelope in a way that few others were willing or capable of doing and, now, are setting the benchmark for where others ought to be aiming. Oh, and they did it all in just eight years.

Konica Minolta

Kazuo Tashima founded Minolta in 1928 under the name Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten (Japan-Germany Photo Company) and released his first camera, the folding Nifcallete, the following year.

Over the next eighty years, the Minolta name was tied to a number of important photographic milestones. John Glenn brought a Minolta camera with him on the Friendship 7 during America’s first manned spaceflight in 1962. The Minolta CLE (1981) used the world’s first through-the-lens auto-exposure system in a 35mm SLR, and it was followed in 1985 by the world’s first autofocus SLR, the Minolta Maxxum-7000. Minolta also introduced their first Digital SLR-like camera, the RD-175, in 1995.

But by the turn of the millennium, the old giants of film photography were starting to realize just how bad the digital revolution was going to sting, and that anyone not boarding the digital train was going to get run over by it.

In 2003, Minolta merged with another monolithic Japanese photography company — Konica — hoping that a larger firm would have better chances of survival. Instead, the merger proved to both parties that the future of their company (renamed Konica Minolta) would lie in alternative industries, like office imaging products, and Konica Minolta would be out of the camera market entirely by 2006.

In the intervening time, Konica Minolta produced a number of popular cameras, including a variety of compacts and superzooms, as well as two DLSRs. The first of these was the Maxxum 7D (also known as the Dynax 7D) announced in 2004, which targeted a professional market and was the first DSLR to feature in-camera image stabilization. The following year, they announced the Maxxum 5D, a beginner’s DSLR designed to compete with Canon’s Rebel line and the Nikon D50.

Selling to Sony

By 2006, Konica Minolta had been unable to gain a significant foothold in the digital camera market. And so, in a last-ditch effort to stay in the game, they announced a partnership with another Japanese tech giant Sony, with whom they planned to develop a new line of DSLRs.

However, six months later, Konica Minolta decided to bow out entirely, selling off their entire camera business to Sony, who wasn’t exactly a stranger to the digital camera market — they had introduced their Cybershot line of compact cameras back in 1996 — but had virtually no presence in the professional or prosumer market.

Acknowledging that preexisting partnership, as well as the Konica Minolta pedigree that underlay the cameras they would produce, Sony named their new line Alpha, a designation which had been given to a number of Konica Minolta products before the sale.

Sony was sailing into uncharted waters, and faced the kind of high expectations that come with taking over a much-loved brand. All eyes were on them.

The First Alphas

In the summer of 2006, Sony was ready to roll out their first ever DSLR, appropriately named the Alpha A100.

The first offering was more than a little reminiscent of earlier Konica Minolta products: it shared in-body image stabilization, honeycomb pattern metering, eye-start autofocus (the camera started autofocusing when small sensors below the viewfinder detected the user’s face in close proximity) with the Maxxum DSLRs. Even the lens mount was the same, although re-branded to the Sony Alpha Mount, meaning that A100 users could plunder old Konica Minolta lens stocks.

While Phil Askey at DPReview rated the camera well upon its release, he also noted:

Sony’s entrance to the digital SLR market comes thanks to their finial association with and later purchase of Konica Minolta’s photo division. When you first use the A100 it clearly has more Konica Minolta DNA than Sony. However their influence comes in the added features and image processing (the camera’s user interface and control systems are very similar to previous Konica Minolta digital SLR’s, and that’s no bad thing).

In the beginning, Sony proceeded with baby steps rather than leaps. Their next DSLR, the higher-end A700, featured a new autofocus system and special integration with Sony-designed televisions. In late 2007, they introduced three new DSLRs simultaneously — the A200, A300 and A350 — foreshadowing Sony’s later passion for diversifying their digital camera offerings.

Then, in 2008, Sony fired a major salvo in the war for consumer attention with the release of their A900, at the time the highest resolution full-frame DSLR available with a 24.6 megapixel sensor.

By the end of 2008, the Konica Minolta heritage still shone strong in Sony’s Alpha DSLRs (not that this was a bad thing); however, it was benefiting in a major way from Sony’s superior marketing capabilities and brand recognition. It was the fastest growing brand in the DSLR market from 2006 to 2008, and seized the third largest share of the market, behind only Canon and Nikon, within two years of the introduction of the A100.

The following year, Sony doubled down on diversification, updating their existing models by introducing the Alpha A230, A330, A380, as well as two new ASP-C DSLRs, the Alphas A500 and A550. Just to be clear, that’s six active lines of cameras, counting the full frame A900. More choice, Sony thought, was the way to rope in more casual users.


Stepping out of their Comfort Zone

With solid sales figures and a few years of experience in the serious photography market under their belt, Sony began to sail farther and farther from the Konica Minolta designs they had inherited.

In 2010, they introduced the first ever Pellicle Mirror DSLR, the SLT A55, using a variant of a long-abandoned semitransparent mirror system which allowing the user to use live view uninterrupted while shooting. The same year, they waded into the mirrorless interchangeable lens market with the Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5, for which they developed a new line of E-mount lenses.


Sony’s Semi-Translucent Mirror System

The next four years would see a number of other interesting projects in the Alpha family. Sony tried a DSLR-styled mirrorless camera with the A3000 and brought full-frame capabilities to their SLT system (another world’s first) with the Alpha SLT-A99. They also partnered with Hasselblad to make a collection of strange, astronomical-themed and astronomically-priced luxury cameras, the Stellar, Lunar, and HV — perhaps not a “good” idea, but a unique one at least.

More recently, they built the first non-rangefinder full-frame mirrorless system with the Alpha A7, followed up by the tres-sensitive A7s; and all that is not even mentioning the landmark contributions of their compact Cybershot line, which has undoubtedly been influenced by the Alpha line, but technically predates it and isn’t a direct descendant of the Konica Minolta acquisition.


Looking Forward

While many other companies have been satisfied with slapping incremental improvements onto faux-retro bodies and calling it innovation, Sony embodies the “try anything once” mentality. In a matter of just eight years, Alpha cameras sped through their awkward Dad-driving-you-and-your-date-to-prom teenage period, and developed a spirit and character all their own, based largely on embracing the technological cutting edge.

With compact camera sales sliding further into oblivion, and conventional DSLRs likely next on the chopping block, the rest of the industry is playing catch up with Sony, whose large-sensor mirrorless cameras may be the best existing glimpse into the future of the high-end camera.

That level of accomplishment in such a short period of time deserves both a round of applause and a close examination by every photography company hoping to survive the next decade.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons Users Jean Jacques and RyuKojiro, and

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  • Norshan Nusi

    They did? I always thought that Honeywell sued Minolta over some kind of AF system patent. And it cause huge financial loss for Minolta.

  • EKFoto

    I also shot Olympus before switching to Konica Minolta and then Sony.

    You forget just one thing though ;) ….Sony bought Olympus a while ago :D (anyway, a important share of it). It’s beneficial for both as they share awesome patents both of Sony and Olympus :)

  • PazinBoise

    Camera folks are hard to please. Sony sucks because they try to many things, Nikon/Canon suck because they don’t try enough, mirrorless companies (Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji) suck because they have “inferior” small sensors, cell phone manufacturer suck because those aren’t “real” cameras, companies like Lytro suck because they are too gimmicky.

    I like what Sony is doing and in a few years I will probably upgrade from my Canon 70D to whatever the current A7 equivalent will be. They aren’t perfect but I like the trends they typically set or follow.

  • EKFoto

    Oh, thanks, I wasn’t up to date on that info, I knew about the part regarding medical and sensor technologies, but didn’t know of other areas. :)

  • Stephen431

    There is something to what you say, however, the Minidisc was a pretty good format. It was a competitor to CDs (and audio cassettes early on), not so much MP3 players, because it came out in the early nineties. The first breakthrough MP3 player was the Diamond Rio which came out in the late nineties.
    Minidiscs were great for recording audio (I used one in college to record lecture notes). Minidisc didn’t die because it was a bad format. It died because CD-Rs became dirt cheap and you could play them in your existing car stereo. CD-Rs killed a lot of things. Remember ZipDrives?

    If you want to remind people to be pissed at Sony, you should remind them of the rootkits they installed in thousands of people’s computers to try to block MP3 rips on their CDs. That was innovative…

    One thing about Sony is that while they love using their own proprietary formats (that aren’t always the best), they will continue supporting that format until the market is totally, and completely dead. They’ll support their format until the bitter end. They don’t really strand people. They just wall them in until they die of old age.

    Also remember that Compact Disc & Blu-Ray were Sony developed formats too. They occasionally get it right.

    I have 2 Sony mirrorless cameras. They’re both excellent cameras. Even their newest cameras are still compatible with MemoryStick, though a little over 99% of their users will only ever use SD cards in them.

  • Judith Taylor

    No problem. When I first read about Sony and Olympus possibly working together I thought WOW, but sadly no, excpet their sensor is in the OMD EM5 while Panasonic made the sensor for the OMD EM1. I like Olympus, but the micro 4/3rds is not for me. in fact I’m going to sell my EM5 to had more Sony and or Minolta lenses.

  • Judith Taylor

    Nikon being one of them.

  • Zos Xavius

    Honeywell distributed pentax in america for some time. When that deal ended, Pentax set up shop themselves in the states. Plenty of spotmatics say “Honeywell Pentax” on the prism hump. Later cameras just say Pentax or Asahi Pentax.

  • Zos Xavius

    From wikipedia:
    1991: Minolta’s autofocus design was found to infringe on the patents of Honeywell, a U.S. corporation. After protracted litigation, in 1991 Minolta was ordered to pay Honeywell damages, penalties, trial costs, and other expenses in a final amount of $127.6-million (source: NY Times).

  • Zos Xavius

    I tried to google first fully automatic SLR and came across the A-1. The autoreflex is not TTL, but you are right, it is the first SLR that had a program mode. The article is claiming that the first TTL camera came on the block in 1981, which is well after the A-1, that’s what I was taking issue with. Also very cool that you used to write Konica ads. :)

  • Zos Xavius

    There are three new cameras with the sony sensor out of large mixture of cameras and backs currently for sale. There are backs with higher megapixels that they surely will not just stop selling or abandon for a lower MP sony chip. It is completely absurd to claim that sony owns a market when they do not even have a majority share.

  • Zos Xavius

    Sony has a small share of the MF currently. 3 cameras out of many backs and bodies. How do they own the market again?

  • Pascual Cora Jr.

    The Canon /Nikon mention is in reference to what Jan Uwe Richter said. And Yes I agree, we are cool we can at least have a decent conversation with out insulting each other unlike Mr. Jan Uwe Richter.

  • Gav

    You either have very little experience shooting digital MF or just being obtuse… The simple fact that it is a CMOS sensor should be obvious. Up till now you really can’t shoot MF above 100 ISO due to noise. On the Sony sensor you can happily shoot at 1600 ISO with less noise than most 35mm cameras (as with the 50MP sensor each pixel is still effectively larger than on a 35mm CMOS). No photographer buying a MF camera is going to look at any other MF sensor…period…Which is way all MF manufactures have rushed product to market with this sensor all within a month of each other.That alone is an example how much this sensor changes the MF industry. Any manufacture not using this sensor is toast.

    Actually there are 4 new MF cameras/back using the Sony sensor. Which is every manufacture currently in business. Hasselblad, Phase One, Lieca and Pentax. It is also Likely that either Fuji and or Sony will also enter the camera market at Photokina with this sensor.

    So yes Sony currently complete controls the MF market. By all means go buy yourself a CCD MF back. You will be able to pick one up for a song.

  • Omar Salgado

    My confusion? Really?

  • Omar Salgado

    Yes, I said “incremental improvements”, but I never said that they all were such. It is clear that there is innovation, but if we cannot distinguish between one or another, well, you end up with a list like the one that is above.

  • JoeC123

    Companies often have to bet on a format, and having betted on one, will try to get as many people as possible to adopt it. As long as they’re not actually forcing people to choose their format over someone else’s, I don’t see what the problem is.

    If you’re worried about it, wait to invest in new technologies until format wars are over. It usually just takes a year or two and you’ve survived up till that point without whatever the new tech is. That’s what I’ve always done, anyway.

  • Norshan Nusi

    Thanks for clearing it out~

    That was indeed a lot of money…

  • David Mitchell

    While expresses some negative vibes, there is an air of reality that I can side with.
    For most of the analog photographic technology boom, there were only three optical glass foundries in Japan; Nikon, Canon and Minolta. They had supplied glass blanks to all others. By the mid-80s these foundries were using CAD programming to assist not only in lens and lens group designs but in formulating the ingredients for optical glass composition as well (of over 150 different formulations), developed specific for a lens design. Germany is also known for the best glass composition in the world, one reason is do to its ‘superior nature sand properties’.

  • David Mitchell

    True; Minolta & Leica often partnered together (Minolta building a 80-200 Leica-branded zoom).

  • Mrchairman

    Konica Autoreflex T (1968) is TTL

  • Zos Xavius

    Yep. I discovered that as well. Seems like wikipedia has some bias. See the canon A-1 page.

  • notafb

    I don’t, that’s why I recently went the other direction. Sony has disappointed me long enough. I love my D800E! 2 years old and still kicks but. NOTHING from Sony can touch it.

  • PazinBoise

    Well to each their own but lets not forget that sensor in your D800E is made by Sony and it is basically the same as the A7R (not saying they perform the same as they do have different processors and feature sets).